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Has Australia backflipped on missile defence?

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COMMENTS

25 February 2008 09:20

There's confusion this morning about the Rudd Government's position on missile defence, abetted by some rather opaque remarks by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith on the Sunday program (click on the 'more' button below to read the relevant bit of the transcript).

The Age has interpreted Smith as signalling a backflip on Labor policy, and Diplomatic Editor Dan Flitton can be excused for this reading. After all, Labor's national platform notes their objection to US national missile defence on the grounds that it could undermine non-proliferation and would 'impact on the security situation in the Asia Pacific'. But the platform also says 'Labor supports the development of capability for in-theatre defence of ADF personnel and key strategic interests from ballistic missile attack.'

This is a rather delicate and precarious policy distinction which we might examine more carefully in a later post. For now though, to address the issue at hand: has Labor backflipped?

In his Sunday interview, Smith conflates national missile defence and 'in theatre' missile defence to the point where you could easily read his remarks as suggesting a new openness to the former. Hence The Age's 'backflip'. But Smith also makes enough references to the protection of ADF troops to make me believe that he is actually referrring only to 'in theatre' missile defence, and thus he is being quite consistent with Labor's platform.

Still, Ross Babbage is right that there are no longer any clear divisions between various layers of missile defence, and so Smith's remarks might be a deliberate bit of obfuscation that will eventually see the Government support all aspects of the program. And that would be a backflip.

Laurie Oakes: Well, on the subject of yesterday's AUSMIN meeting, why is the Australian Government now being so coy about the possible missile defence system cooperation with the United States?

Stephen Smith: Well, I wouldn't describe it as being coy. I mean, in Opposition, we said that we would look carefully at missile defence for theatre purposes, but we weren't persuaded about missile defence for strategical global purposes, largely because of the cost and secondly because of concerns about the technological capacity. The technology has moved on and so what we've said is that in conversation with our ally, with the United States, we're happy to give consideration to the missile defence arrangements, but we want to do that very carefully, and do that sort of in a deliberate and sober way. So it's not a matter of being coy. The technology changes and we don't want to make any decisions which would deprive us of technology which might in the end be in our national security interests and be able to protect our forces in the field.

LO: There is no, I said you're being coy though, as Joel Fitzgibbon the Defence Minister yesterday said this has been discussed but had to remain confidential, now you're having secret talks about a missile defence system.

SS: Well, they're not secret talks.

LO: He said they were, they had to be confidential.

SS: Well, they're not secret talks. Everyone knows we were there at AUSMIN yesterday. But obviously there are things which we discuss, around the table, which go to our national security interests and it wouldn't be appropriate or wise or sensible for either Joel or me to be tipping them out either yesterday at a press conference or on your show, but in general terms there's no secret to what we said in Opposition or what we're now contemplating. The technology has changed. We don't want to deprive ourselves sensibly of any capacity which might be of benefit to our troops if they're in the field, either in a UN peacekeeping force or an international force.

LO: This is a change, though, isn't it, because Kevin Rudd said, as shadow Foreign Minister, "We have profound reservations about missile defence." Those reservations seem to have gone?

SS: No, no, that's not right. We said that, and Kevin said that those reservations went to, if you like, global strategic use of missile defence. We weren't persuaded that the technology was there. We weren't persuaded that it was viable in terms of cost. We made it clear during our time in Opposition that we would happily give consideration to theatre or limited missile defence. The technology has moved on. We are yet to be persuaded, we're not rushing to embrace it. We are just giving very careful consideration to it, and we'll do that in conjunction with our United States ally.

LO: So son of "Star Wars" could be acceptable?

SS: Well, we're working our way through it very carefully. This is not a decision that we're going to be making tomorrow, but when we do come to a final deliberation, we will obviously let people know the framework of that. But we're not going to be rushed and there is no need to be rushed.

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